Monday, February 8, 2010

Missing Puzzle Piece

This weekend was another great adventure in my continued journey into the depths of trail-running ultra-marathons. Here are some thoughts and perspective while it is relatively fresh in my mind:

All week my anticipation has been building for the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile Endurance trail run in Huntsville, Texas. It has been 3 months since my first attempt to finish a 100-miler. I know I have raised my fitness level during this time. I have put in the miles on the trail, done some solid core work in the gym, and trimmed 10 pounds off my frame during this time. During these winter months I have run in the worst conditions imaginable. Pouring rain, sleet and snow, and howling northern winds. A good chunk of these miles were done in these conditions under the cover of darkness while the rest of the world was tucked warmly in their beds. With a race date of Feb 6th, you never know what conditions I might get that day. I will be ready for the worst and hope for the best.

The week leading up to a race that could last up to 30-hours requires some careful planning and strategy in a number of areas: Nutrition, Hydration, medical needs, logistics, equipment, clothing, shoes, accommodations, and many others. I spend the days leading up to my departure laying out my gear and creating lists. I am in my local running store almost every day this week for “one more thing”. At least four trips to Target for various items. I over-packed for the previous race, Cactus Rose, and I am trying to scale things back while not leaving out something critical to keep myself moving on the trail late in the race.

With the race taking place just 40 miles from College Station, I have called one of my closest friends and fraternity brother from my days at Texas A&M. I regret to say that we have not seen each other in over 15 years, but it is the kind of friendship that is easy and comfortable like not a day has passed. He has a 2700-acre hunting ranch on the Navasota River ( and has offered to put me and my running crew up in his lodge/bunkhouse. Accommodations: Check.

The time on the trail is the reason for all of this planning, but I enjoy all aspects of the entire weekend. It is the whole road-trip thing with good friends. Our day on the road to head South starts at 5:45 am Friday morning. My training partners are two extremely tough chiquitas. Do not ever bet against these two. I would say we are a pretty tight crew. They put up with my Zen-ramblings and ideas for crazy running adventures and I am their whipping boy for everything else. “Dave! I need _____!.” In generally, we mostly give each other a hard time. All kidding aside, we share the highs and lows of our times running together as well as some of the highs and lows of our life in reality off the trail. Don’t mess with them, because you will be messin’ with me too!

We hit the ranch at about 9:30 that morning. As excited as I am about the race, reuniting with my buddy Kyle is definitely a highlight of the entire weekend. Talk about a friend who always has your back. Kyle has always been the kind of friend you knew you could call if you were in a pinch at any hour and he would find a way to help you out. (More about that later.)

We get our gear unloaded and sorted out to take our drop-bags over to race registration later that afternoon. The rains have washed out Kyle’s hunting guests for the weekend so we have the entire place to ourselves: One main room with 3 sets of bunks, 3 private bedrooms, 3 separate bathrooms and a full kitchen. This beats the heck out of Motel 6. Due to our early start, we are in no rush. We actually have about an hour to kill for a power-nap before we have to get on the move again.

Next up: Let the carbo-loading begin. We get a rock-solid recommendation from our host on the best local Italian restaurant and off we go. After a hearty meal and some more laughs with the girls we head over to Huntsville. We beat the rush at registration and we are one of the first of over 350 runners to leave our drop-bags. We have some time to kill before the trail meeting so we decide go check out the start/finish over at the trail. We hear parking will be tough, so we scope things out and adjust the all important time schedule to make sure we are not in a rush tomorrow morning.

Breakfast for dinner at IHOP and we make the short cruise back to the ranch. I would like to say this little trip was uneventful, but it was not. 5 minutes from the ranch I see the flashing red and blues in my rearview mirror. I religiously use cruise control so I know there was no way I was speeding. Long story short: Following too closely=warning no ticket. Driving with an expired license=$170. Ouch.

By 9:00pm my head hits the pillow and I am out. 3:30am wake-up will come quickly. Luckily, I sleep relatively soundly for the night before a race. A hot shower to warm my muscles, race-gear on, a quick breakfast of steel-cut oats and a banana, and we are on the road to the race site. We get a great parking spot and feel in no rush to be ready when the gun goes off at 6:00am.

I put a lot of thought into my race strategy for this day over the last few weeks. The girls are shooting for a sub-24 hour time. For some reason I feel this course will allow me to go faster and I want to push things a bit. I have a spreadsheet that allows me to toy around with run-walk strategies. I come up with 20-3 to run 20. Translation: Run 20 minutes at a 10:40 pace and walk 3 minutes at a 15:00 pace and I will finish 100 miles in 20 hours. Sound simple enough. 5 laps. 4 hours per lap.

350 people is a big group to have start a trail run in the dark on single-track. For those of you in Dallas, think Central Expressway in Plano when it rains. I am not too worried about this because it will force me to ease into things a bit. I do not hear an official starting call, but the whoops and hollers of the surging mass of bobbing headlamps tell me it is game on!

A bit about this course: Generally, it is comprised of rolling hills with only a few places that reason tells you to walk up. Almost the entire trail is under the canopy of pines trees in nice, sandy soil. The obstacles on this course are the roots that like to pop up all over the place. Leaves on the trail will make it tricky even though this trail is not very technical by any standard. The race director bills the course this way: “Rocky Raccoon is built for speed and comfort.” Most people do not think that there can be anything comfortable about running 100 miles in the woods. It is definitely all relative. Cactus Rose is billed this way: “A nasty rugged trail run: No Whiners, Wimps, or Wusses. We give Bonus Points for Blood, Cuts, Scrapes, & Puke.” Trust me. This course was all that it was advertised and then some. Speed and comfort on the trail this time sound good to me and I have aspirations to match.

I hit the first aid station in 32 minutes and keep going without looking at it twice. I am 5 minutes ahead of the pace chart I have zip-tied to my race number. As the sun rises, the long line of runners thins out and I am able to work up to a nice pace. I find myself running next to a man who has come all the way to Guatemala to run this race. My Spanish is as spotty as his English, but we both speak perfect Trail. We hit it off famously. He calls me Dallas the rest of the day. Little did I know at that time how many miles I would run that day with Juan Pablo Salazar. We press the pace a bit with me leading a train of 4-5 runners with Pablo right behind me. On this first lap I am taking in the details of the terrain of a trail I have never run before. I will have 4 more laps after this to figure it out.

Along the way during this first lap, I stub my toe on one of those sneaky little roots I mentioned earlier and hit the deck hard on two different occasions. I am lucky to find a sandy landing both times without any damage. Many others this day would not be so lucky. I finish lap one in 3 hours and 28 minutes feeling strong and confident. I reload on some fuel and hydration and take off for loop two planning on pulling back the reins a bit. Pablo and I fall out of pace with each other several times, but always seem to be leaving the aid stations at about the same time. Pablo has an infectious smile and has made more friends on the trail than anyone. Almost everyone we pass knows him by name. Pablo looks at me and smiles. “Dallas! We go!” The culture of the trail is truly universal.

As I near the end of lap two my fingers feel tight and stiff. I look down at them and notice that they are swollen. In retrospect this was the first indication of things to come. Dehydration. It is a cool day so far and I have been running without a shirt. This probably kept me from realizing how much fluid I have been losing. I up my fluid intake and finish lap two in 3:58 minutes. I am now right on the pace I want to maintain for the next 60 miles. In 12 hours I could be done!

At the start/finish I put on my new 2XU compression tights over my Zoot race compression socks and pull on a shirt. It is still mid-afternoon, but the sun is starting its slow decline and the temperature is fading. The tights wrap my muscles in an extra layer of sheathing and it gives me a lift as I head out once again. I squeeze a caffeine-laced gel in my mouth. A wave of nausea flows over me and I am about to throw up. I have mostly been doing gels mixed with the typical ultra-fare provided at the aid stations. I will myself to hold it down. Looking back, I would have been better off emptying my stomach and starting over.

As lap three progresses, I continue to battle nausea. For the last 15 miles I have been pouring Tums in me at every stop. I hit an aid station looking to increase my water intake and for some neutral foods to balance my stomach out. The volunteers at the aid stations are amazing. Most are seasoned veterans of many ultras who give up their entire weekend to help you find a way to finish yours. Unfortunately for me my camelback gets topped-off with Heed, an electrolyte drink that I have never been able to stomach, instead of water. I have 6 miles to the next station and cannot afford to get further behind on my hydration during this time. I force as much of the Heed down as I can and press on.

I roll into the start/finish at the end of lap three still optimistic about just about everything even though it took me 5 hours to finish this loop. I know my stretch goal of a 20-hour finish will not be realized. 24 hours is still possible and I have no doubt I can finish somehow by walking through the night if I have to. I am not eating well, but keeping chasing the Tums and eating what I can. I know that your fortunes in a race like this can change many times. Coming into the start/finish area on each loop cannot help but give you a lift. Roars of support and encouragement welcome every runner. As loud as they cheer for you on the way in, the send-off for the next lap is even greater. They let you know they appreciate the growing courage it takes to press-on yet again into the darkness.

I geared-up for the dropping temperatures that come with the darkness. Lows for the night are expected to be about 36 degrees. Throughout the day I have passed the girls on the trail. We trade high fives and offer words of encouragement. I have definitely missed sharing the trail with them on this day. Thank goodness for Pablo from Guatemala. By now all but the slowest of the 50-mile runners have finished and all that is left are the 100-milers strung out across 20 miles of trail. The eventual winner of the race lapped me when I was on my 3rd loop. He would eventually finish in 14 hours and 58 minutes. A staggering 9 minute mile pace for 100 miles! I see him on his fifth lap and he is pounding it out at exactly the same pace as he was in lap one. Amazing.

I am still battling increasing nausea. In the darkness under weary feet the tiny roots begin to catch my toes more frequently. I do not go down but have several close calls. This also slows my pace. My vision begins to get a bit “fucky” as we call it. Everything is hazy and I start to get tunnel vision. This is a sure sign of severe fatigue. Usually, I start to amp-up some caffeine in the second half of a race, but I have been unable to do so due to my stomach and hydration issues. I begin to sense that what started as some minor tactical errors are compounding themselves and putting me in a dangerous position.

At this point I have been on my feet pushing my body harder than I ever have for almost 18 hours over 73 miles of trails. I have 2 miles to the next aid station. I am reduced to walking and I can barely keep my eyes open. I stumble off the trail several times as I literally drift off to sleep while walking. I stop for a minute and lean over and place my hands on my knees. This does not help. I almost pass out and fall over right there. I force myself onward.

I see the friendly glow of the aid station through the trees around the next bend. I garner as much courage as I can to stride into the tent without looking completely broken-down. My plan was to sit in a chair for the first time all day. Just for a few minutes I would close my eyes and tell a volunteer not to let me sit longer than 30 minutes. Immediately I have 2-3 people offering to help me with anything and everything. They offer me all variety of food and drink. Hot and cold. Salty and sweet. Black coffee. Nothing sounds good.

My reduced pace over the last few miles has also allowed the cold to creep in. Now that I am sitting in a chair it hits me like a ton of bricks. A fellow runner is sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket. Without saying a word he takes the blanket off of himself and wraps it around my shoulders. One of the thousands of acts of kindness that take place at one of these events. I did not have the mental energy to even speak, but I have a grateful heart. My teeth are chattering uncontrollably now.

A few minutes later Melissa and then Suzi come through the aid station. They both offer me words of encouragement. Suzi offers to drag me with her so I would have some company to talk to and hopefully get myself started again. I know I am in trouble and I do not want either of my friends to put their day in jeopardy. I lie and tell them I will be Ok and for them to go on.

Now I find myself at the defining moment of yet another 100-mile effort. At Cactus Rose my mind was more than willing, but my body broke-down in a way that made it impossible for me to finish before the cut-off and I would probably have done some severe damage to myself physically. This was different. I spent 31 hours straight on the trail at Cactus Rose and never felt this mentally fatigued. My mind lacked the ability to even comprehend that I am actually about to quit when I had vowed to crawl to the finish if I had to, yet here I am pulling the plug. Just like that it is over. I quit.

A brief car ride to the start/finish and I crawl into the car to wait for the girls to finish. I send all the good vibes I could muster towards these two amazing women who are fighting their way to the finish. I know we will be in no shape to drive whenever they show up, so I text Kyle to see if he can drive over to get us a little later. After a short while a phone call confirms that the friend you can always count on was climbing out of bed before dawn to come rescue us. I fall asleep knowing the girls will make a beeline to the car when they are done.

I awaken to pounding on the window. The girls made it! Melissa finished in 24:08 and Suzi in 24:23. They are the 18th and 20th women overall. I had no doubt they would do it. 20 minutes later and Kyle arrives from College Station to drive us back to the ranch. Kyle pulls around by the drop bags so I can pick-up my gear. I walk into the start/finish area under the breaking dawn. Who is the first person I see? Juan Pablo Salazar! He is standing there wrapped in a blanket and flashes me his now famous smile and says “Dallas!” We embrace like brothers. We talk Trail to each other. He asks if I finished. Sadly I have to tell him “No” and I can tell he is disappointed for me. I ask him “Y tu?” I see his hand slowly emerge from under the blanket and he opens his hand to reveal the sub-24 hour finisher’s buckle as a smile spreads across his face. I give him a big hug once again and feel proud to have gotten to spend a significant amount of time on the trail with this man this day and share a small part of his glory. I hope he remembers me as fondly as I will remember him.

After showers at the ranch and a quick brunch with Kyle’s family we head out to make our way back to Dallas. Kyle drives us back to Huntsville to retrieve his car and I get another hour to spend catching-up with him. We part ways promising to connect when he is in Dallas in a few weeks. Throughout the weekend he keeps reminding me to send him a training schedule so he can do one of these crazy events with us. Knowing Kyle he will do it. Who knew it would take trail running to reunite me with one of my oldest friends.

After 36 hours since dropping out yet again of a 100-mile race I have had some time to think about it a bit. I am not dissatisfied with my effort from the weekend. I am not happy with the outcome, but I now I pushed my body harder than I ever have before and I am proud of my efforts. Today is Monday and I just got a 2-hour massage. My muscles feel great. I could go put in a 25-mile training run right now if I had to. This tells me that I have taken my fitness level to new heights. Only a day after pushing my body to its absolute limit for 18 hours straight I am fully functional and ready to do it again. I made a few critical errors on hydration and nutrition. This is just another part of figuring out the puzzle called Ultra-marathon. The way the pieces fit together is different for every person for every race. I cannot wait to try to put the puzzle together again.